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Jamie Collins

By: Jamie Collins

Happy Friday! I have terrific news – you’ve made it through yet another work week! You may recall (if you’ve had enough coffee thus far, my perky, paralegal friends), when we initially announced our first official writing contest on mentors/mentorship, I put one of those cute little post scripts at the bottom of the post to indicate that I would never ask our members to write an article on mentorship if I wasn’t willing to write one myself! So today, I wanted to share my own submission on mentorship, which was recently published in National Paralegal Reporter

Reprinted by permission from The National Federation of Paralegal Associations, Inc., www.paralegals.org.

Chances are, you recently overheard a buzz with regard to the topic of mentorship, whether you actually intended to or not. You innocently landed on a paralegal forum, perused a blog, surfed the web, picked up a magazine or stood in a circle of fellow paralegals at an association meeting, and saw or heard the “m” word — “mentorship.” Perhaps you found yourself wondering why the paralegal community is abuzz with the topic of mentorship these days. Put simply, it’s because it takes a village to raise a paralegal. The paralegal profession has evolved significantly over the past several decades. It has carved out a path which has, through the process of professional evolution, taken us, as paralegals, from typewriters, carbon paper and strictly secretarial duties into more of an elite role, as meaningful contributors who play a significant and pivotal role in the law firms all across America.

Back to the “m” word — what exactly is a mentor? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the term “mentor” is defined as “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.” However, perhaps Oprah Winfrey summed it up best: “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” That is precisely what a mentor is. It is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself, and helps to draw that possibility out of you by way of personal and professional improvement, accomplishments and future success.

I like to think that luck or fate prompted me to walk through the doors of my first law firm. I had no prior legal experience or education whatsoever. I was simply in search of a “real” job; the kind that could become a career.  I will never forget my first week on the job.  There I sat, on the filing room floor, as William N. Riley, a savvy, articulate, witty and well-dressed trial lawyer, attempted to teach me the difference between a pleading and discovery. Whether I knew it or not at the time, he would impact my life in a major way. It was on that day, and in that file room, that I began to learn the fundamentals of an occupation that was destined to become my career.

Looking back, I now realize that Will was my first professional mentor. He helped to change the way I looked at the world. He also educated and inspired me for a number of years. In many ways, he helped me to transform from that inexperienced, 20-year-old girl in the filing room, into the paralegal I am today, as I sit here typing this article. He helped me to see the hope inside myself, realize my personal potential, harness it and bring it forth. While the school of reality certainly wasn’t an exemplary model of organization, training and efficiency in the early years of my career, it served me well. It granted me a front row seat in front of, and direct access to, some of the best mentors out there – successful attorneys, a few of whom were high profile people. These attorneys played a significant role in my legal evolution.   

There are many people we encounter in our lives who help to change us for the better. They help us to acknowledge who we are, what we can be, and to seek our highest potential. Perhaps they see something special in us, in much the same way we often see something special in others. Often, what they “see” is a small piece of themselves. For each of us, there is a time and place where we go from wanting to be something in particular, be it an experienced paralegal, trial prep expert, eloquent speaker, professional writer, active community leader, advisory board member, section chair or mentor to actually becoming it. With the right mentor’s help, there comes a day when we can each fondly look back and realize that we have, indeed, become that person we wanted and intended to become. It is mentors who help to facilitate that process and encourage us to synthesize our dreams and aspirations with our current reality.

At times, mentorship can be an unspoken dynamic void of any formal acknowledgment as to its existence. Our mentors come in many forms. Often, they are our parents, acquaintances, co-workers, editors, association leaders, attorneys and colleagues. On rare occasion, they are simply a random stranger who crosses our path at the right time, as we make our way in the world.

A paralegal colleague, Eric Bleuel, of Ventura California, once told me one of the best “unspoken” mentor stories I have ever heard. I like to refer to Eric’s story as “The Ten Minute Mentor.” This is what he shared:

“Years ago, I was on a ski lift in Colorado and sat next to this stranger. During the chair ride up the mountain, we started talking and sometimes, you just click with someone. Anyway, he was about 20 years older than me. He had a family, a job, etc. I, on the other hand, had just graduated college, didn’t know what to do with my life and was waiting for my first job.

I remember he actually grabbed me by the jacket and said: ‘Look at me man – this is the most important time in your life. You will never have an opportunity to explore and travel like you do at this moment (between school and work).’

Anyway, my point is – that this guy was an important mentor to me and I only knew him for about 10 minutes. For some reason, I really thought about what he said and the passion behind it. In a way, it was “that guy” that inspired me to post-pone entering the workforce and go on a cross-country trip that literally changed my life. I think it’s important not only to have a mentor that is stable and constant in your life, but to keep an eye out for those special people who you meet just briefly and to keep an open mind to what they have to say.”

We sometimes fail to recognize how a chance meeting or an unexpected encounter can forever alter our course. The right mentor can get us to look more intently at that proverbial fork in the road, encourage us to branch out into a new or unexpected direction and compel us to excel beyond imaginable measure. Mentors take us from where we stand currently and help to elevate us beyond the cusp of our current reality into new heights of personal accomplishment and success. They allow us to ascend beyond the academics and into a realm where we can draw upon their personal insight, thoughtful advice and real-world perspective, as they share what they have and what/who they know to help make our journey a bit more pleasant.

As Rusty Berkus eloquently stated: “There comes that mysterious meeting in life when someone acknowledges who we are and what we can be, igniting the circuits of our highest potential.” We hold the capability and potential, but a mentor ignites the circuits of what we can and should become. They help us to become who we are meant to be, even when we may fail to see it within ourselves by providing us with clarity, focus, desire, purpose and a clear and guided path.

People sometimes make the mistaken assumption that a mentor must be an experienced paralegal. That is simply not true. While many mentors are experienced attorneys or paralegals, others are just beginning to tread the waters of the legal profession. I once met a paralegal student from North Carolina named Lakisha Chichester. She reached out to me via e-mail in search of some guidance. Although Lakisha had not yet entered the paralegal field, she was already intent on making positive ripples in the paralegal pond. She realized many of the students around her were in need of knowledge, assistance and guidance, so she decided to host workshops for paralegal students to help them create professional networking profiles, take professional photos for social media purposes, hone their resumes, draft cover letters and practice their interview techniques. To date, Lakisha has hosted 17 workshops! 

Taye Akinola, another paralegal student from Texas, began to write for The Paralegal Society several months ago and landed himself a formal role as a Student Ambassador for the group by way of his informative articles, personal enthusiasm and desire to help others. The leaders of today are not just experienced paralegals – they are the movers and shakers within the paralegal community – experienced or otherwise. They are those who have something to offer and are willing to share it.

Mentors also come in the form of amazing attorneys. As previously mentioned, I was mentored by several successful trial attorneys and a few younger ones, who may not have possessed the same accolades, but definitely understood the role of a paralegal and how to best utilize one within the practice of law. I think in many ways, these young attorneys and I mentored each other. They knew the law and how to think like a lawyer and I knew all of the practical A-Z knowledge and job skills required to accomplish what needed to be done. In essence, mentorship breeds personal evolution and an endless cycle of giving to the success of others to make the paralegal village a better place.

Somewhere inside of you, there is a small piece of you that knows there is more to you than what you have shown the world thus far. There is something you have always longed to do, possessed the aptitude for or wanted to try and it is bubbling just below the surface –  just waiting for you to take a chance on yourself, harness a full dose of courage, listen, follow through and become a better you. The best way to harness that potential is to find a mentor who can help to ignite that small piece of your soul that is a mere flicker now, but ready to blaze a new trail as you learn a new area of law, seek a new position, obtain a paralegal certification, network more meaningfully, step into a leadership role, become a paralegal writer, an instructor or a more savvy paralegal.

Your full potential is waiting on you and somewhere in your paralegal village, there is a mentor who is waiting for you to make the approach, so he or she can help to ignite that flame and compel you to become the paralegal you “really” are. After all — it takes a village to raise a paralegal, and you and I are certainly no exception.

Now get out there and find yourself a mentor!

“The most important single influence in the life of a person is another person
…who is worthy of emulation.”
Paul D. Shafer

“Trust that little voice in your head that says ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if…’
And then do it.”
– Duane Michaels

“If you want to make your dreams come true, the first thing you have to do is wake up.”
– J.M. Power